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Freedom of speech needs a free and reliable press

The BBC is not the story here.

I mention this in case you were misled by yesterday's morning news bulletin on BBC1, which led on an interview with the chairman of the BBC Trust conducted during the BBC programme which the news was interrupting, about the resignation of the Director-General of the BBC following his responses to questions (on a BBC programme) about another BBC programme's investigation of still another BBC programme's having dropped its report into abuse by a former BBC employee, some of it possibly conducted on BBC premises.

I hope that's clear, even if it sounds like a particularly tiresome postmodern novel. The reason the BBC is not the story is, first and foremost, that the most important issue is to establish why victims of child abuse seem not to have been taken seriously, and why the perpetrators got away with their crimes. Next to that, George Entwistle's resignation, and whether Newsnight survives as the BBC's news analysis programme, are of small importance, no matter how much they fascinate those in the media.

Journalists are, however, congenitally inclined to tell you what they think the story is – not unnaturally, for it is more or less the job description – and much given to arguing amongst themselves about what the story really is. The horrid story of what everyone now seems agreed were the repulsive Jimmy Savile's frequent crimes, and whether anyone was culpable by failing to investigate complaints about him properly, in fact began with just such a difference of opinion.

Leave aside for the moment the question of whether Peter Rippon, the editor of Newsnight who has since "stepped aside", came under pressure, implied or direct, from anyone else at the BBC. By his own account, he thought the Savile story was about whether complaints about the presenter had been correctly handled by the police. But his reporters, who had interviewed Savile's victims, thought the story was about whether Savile was a paedophile, tout court.

Most of us would not hesitate to take the latter view, as long as the accusations seem credible. Similarly, if someone mentioned to us (as they did to Mr Entwistle) that Savile was being investigated, we might have thought not just "Better not interfere editorially" but also "Gosh, if there's any truth at all in this, might it be an idea to reconsider the advisability of the adulatory programme we're doing on the old pervert?"

By contrast, we might have been cautious about broadcasting the edition of Newsnight that claimed a former (unnamed) government minister had abused someone without showing the victim a picture of the alleged perpetrator. Especially since, when just that was done, the victim promptly said that it wasn't him at all.

If those would have been your basic instincts, congratulations. You understand arcane journalist procedures such as checking whether things are true, and only publishing them when they are, better than the pompously named Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the editorial command structure of the BBC's flagship news programme.

That Rupert Murdoch's newspapers and TV channels complain that these were failings by the BBC – something Lord Patton mentioned as an awful warning during that interview yesterday – shouldn't obscure the fact that they were, on any neutral analysis, in strictly factual terms, self-evidently and not to put too fine a point on it, bleeding obviously, failings. The fact that Mr Murdoch believes something doesn't automatically make it wrong, even if your instinct is to bet that way.

The BBC's critics in other media have the not-unreasonable motive that they are its commercial rivals, yet the BBC has the subsidy of the licence fee. But the desirability or otherwise of protecting the BBC's funding isn't the central point; the criticisms being made are of fundamental journalistic failures which one wouldn't expect of a trainee on a local newspaper. It doesn't say much for the BBC's competence, by the way, that both Sky and ITV broke the news of Mr Entwistle's departure before the corporation, although its evening news was actually on air at the time.

It could be true (it probably is) that the BBC is the greatest public sector broadcaster in the world and simultaneously that it tends to have a bias towards the liberal left. The latter is, after all, also true of most bodies reliant on public funds, such as academe, the civil service and the NHS. It could be argued that there is no justification for public funding of much of its output. All that is secondary.

These failures are editorial. Newsnight didn't run a well-researched report, obviously in the public interest, that it should have broadcast. Then, even worse, it did run a barely-examined set of allegations which sparked an internet witch-hunt against completely innocent people.

No-one expects Twitter or Facebook to be responsible journalism, any more than you'd believe everything said on a telephone line (which is the medium that social networks most resemble). We do, however, expect such standards from proper news outlets, especially those which are publicly funded, and whose reputation depends on Olympian neutrality and trustworthiness.

It's worth pointing out, too, that no matter what the Government says, the BBC is not responsible to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but to the BBC Trust and, ultimately, the licence holders. Freedom of speech depends on a free press, but that freedom can only be preserved when the press is reliable and free from government interference.

No regulation is necessary to correct failures to measure up to that. You can stop buying a newspaper, or withdraw advertising from a TV channel, when that trust is lost, as Mr Murdoch knows to his cost. Yet though Mr Entwistle had to go, and Lord Patten probably should follow, ditching the licence fee needn't necessarily be next – if, and only if, the BBC does its basic job properly.

It is only fair to point out that, navel-gazing though it looks, the BBC's coverage of its shortcomings has, as many have observed, shown the corporation at its best, as well as at its worst. The BBC's best chance, then, lies with its editors and journalists, not its management.

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